Nation's Economic Good Times Leave Districts Short on Support

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Christopher J. Watkins has become an economic indicator of sorts in St. Louis Park, Minn.

The back-to-school rush in the 4,200-student suburban Minneapolis district started last month with a critical shortage of bus drivers. It was, officials said, a simple case of supply and demand: too many job openings and too few people who wanted to fill them.

"This is the worst year I've seen yet," said Bruce H. Dischinger, the regional manager for Ryder Student Transportation Services in St. Paul, which works with more than a dozen school districts in the Twin Cities area, including St. Louis Park.

The bus company flew in drivers from the East Coast, and school leaders issued a plea for district employees to go through intensive driver training over the Labor Day weekend.

Mr. Watkins, a 27-year-old physical education teacher, was one of those who answered the call. He's spent the past few weeks behind the wheel, teaching his regular PE classes between the morning and afternoon bus runs.

"I never thought I'd do this as a teacher. But it was clear they really needed help, and the extra money was something my wife and I could use," Mr. Watkins said. He is earning time and a half, based on his teacher's salary, for his bus duty.

What's happening in St. Louis Park is a byproduct of the strong U.S. economy, observers say.

The economic good times, including the lowest unemployment rates in a generation, have meant hard times for many districts nationwide that are struggling to find bus drivers, cafeteria workers, janitors, and other support workers.

While the situation has not hit the crisis point for most districts, it is a definite concern for many, said Barbara M. Wheeler, the president of the National School Boards Association.

"The question mark is if this will continue to grow or disappear," depending on which way the economic winds blow, Ms. Wheeler, a suburban Chicago school board member said.

Stiff Competition

In fact, not all communities are sharing equally in the economic boom. Unemployment remains above the national average in big cities such as New York, Los Angeles, and Miami and in smaller communities such as Yuma, Ariz., and McAllen, Texas, according to the U.S. Department of Labor.

Nationally, the unemployment rate has hovered just below 5 percent for more than a year. The last time unemployment was so consistently low was in the late-1960s through early 1970, according to Labor Department spokesman Carl Fillichio.

Low unemployment makes for a job seeker's market. Service and retail jobs are especially plentiful, forcing school districts to compete with private industry to hire support workers, labor experts say.

Districts usually are at a disadvantage when competing for such workers because schools offer seasonal, part-time, and shift work at relatively low pay without full benefits. But there are signs that may be changing in a more competitive labor market.

The labor crunch is especially acute in districts hit by the double whammy of fast-growing student enrollment and a shrinking labor pool.

As a human resources administrator in the 56,000-student Seminole County, Fla., schools, James J. Elliott is only too familiar with the tale.

This year, his schools were short on janitors and day-care and cafeteria workers.

"As the economy improves, and we get closer to full employment, it just gets tighter. We've seen it progressively become impossible to fill positions," he said.

In recent years, the district has cobbled together full-time jobs by hiring the same person to work, for example, as a bus monitor in the morning and afternoon and as a server in the cafeteria during lunch.

The school system has started to team up with temporary-placement agencies and groups that help find jobs for former welfare recipients. And it has boosted its cafeteria pay scale to be more competitive with the scores of restaurants serving the tourist trade in neighboring Orlando, where unemployment is a lean 3 percent.

But competition is still stiff, Mr. Elliott said.

"We try to compete with the outside world as far as paychecks, but they can beat us out in a bargaining situation" he said. "If someone says, 'Well, McDonald's will give me $10 an hour,' we can't say we'll give you $11. We've got a budget."

Cafeteria Crunch

In two Boulder, Colo., schools, students have brought their own lunches to school since late August because the district has had such a tough time finding workers to run the cafeterias, said Nancy J. Paluh, the food-services manager for the rapidly growing 25,000-student Boulder Valley district.

Until the district can fully reopen the school kitchens, there's a stash of milk, juice, and peanut butter and jelly sandwiches for students who forget to bring their lunches or who are eligible for free or reduced-price meals.

"I could get the cafeteria food," Ms. Paluh said. "I just couldn't serve it" without any workers.

"It gets worse every year. We're struggling to just keep up with the local economy," Ms. Paluh said, adding that the district is also tight on janitors and bus drivers.

In Orlando, Fla., workers are so difficult to find that Shirley S. Cowans, the principal of William Frangus Elementary School, has been sharing crossing guard duty with a teacher and a guidance counselor since school started in August. Ms. Cowans said she found out about the shortage when no one showed up for duty on the first day of school.

"We realized we'd have to cover it ourselves," she said.

Crossing guards in Orange County, which includes Orlando, earn $6.98 an hour with no benefits and work about two hours a day, according to Jack Breslin, a county sheriff's department employee who hires and supervises the guards. Orange County is short about 60 guards to fill 360 posts, he said.

"They're quitting now more than ever before because there are jobs just everywhere. We're having the worst problem I've seen in 12 years," Mr. Breslin said.

Redoubled Recruitment

The approach officials have taken in the 13,000-student, K-8 Tempe, Ariz., district is becoming increasingly common in places where schools face a labor crunch.

School marquees have become job boards, and school buses emblazoned with ''help wanted'' banners are parked in busy shopping centers.

School bus companies and districts under the gun to find drivers are offering finders' fees, signing and attendance bonuses, tuition-reimbursement plans, and free shuttles to and from work.

Some districts are starting to look at similar techniques to entice cafeteria workers, said Phyllis M. Griffith, the president-elect of the American School Food Service Association in Alexandria, Va., and the food-service director for the Columbus, Ohio, schools.

Some school bus companies have teamed up with fast-food restaurants and manufacturing plants that hire part-time or shift workers and are offering those employees driving positions to fill their remaining hours, said Karen E. Finkel, the executive director of the National School Transportation Association in Springfield, Va.

In Minnesota's St. Louis Park, Superintendent Barbara M. Pulliam said it looks as if the worst of the driver shortage may be coming to an end--for now. New trainees are expected to start work soon.

"We know the booming economy is definitely driving this. But no one wishes for the economy to be any different. It's quite a dilemma of sorts," she said.

The district is discussing ways to avoid future shortages, perhaps by requiring custodians to have a bus license to help out in a pinch.

But just in case, Mr. Watkins, the PE teacher, said he's ready to step in again: "I'll keep at it, as long as the snow doesn't fly."

Vol. 18, Issue 6, Pages 1, 14

Published in Print: October 7, 1998, as Nation's Economic Good Times Leave Districts Short on Support
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